Happy Halloween! In today's episode we discuss Romanticism, a period that produced some of our favorite creepy images in the history of art. Romantic artists like Caspar David Friedrich, Francisco de Goya, William Blake, and Théodore Géricault explored themes of death, despair, the sublime, and madness––perfect for your Halloween enjoyment!
Check out the Slideshow below for images that we mention in the episode. Scroll down further for our Postscript (stuff that didn't make it into the episode), in which Sarah discusses another one of her favorite scary images, a panel from Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece depicting The Temptation of Saint Anthony (c. 1512-16).
Sarah: Another one of my favorite creepy images is a work by the German Renaissance artist Matthias Grünewald: a panel from his polyptych the Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1512-16) that represents the temptation of St. Anthony.
Constructed in the early 16th century, this enormous altarpiece was commissioned for a monastery of the order of St. Anthony, which assisted victims of what was called St. Anthony’s fire. Today called ergotism, St. Anthony's fire was a common disease in the Middle Ages, the result of longtime ingestion of the fungus ergot, which infected rye. Ergot results in two effects, gangrene and psychosis (hallucinations were a common side effect). When the Isenheim Altarpiece is closed, we see a depiction of the Crucifixion in which Christ appears to be afflicted with this disease. He appears in utter agony, with pockmarked skin, mangled hands, and disproportionately large feet against a stark, black background.
The Isenheim Altarpiece is a polyptych (it consists of more than three panels) and has a complex program. When initially opened, the first set of panels depict scenes of the Annunciation, Adoration, and Resurrection. Completely open, the altarpiece reveals a sculpted image of Saint Anthony, and two panels depicting the Meeting of Saints Anthony and Paul, and the Temptation of Saint Anthony.
Anthony was a Christian saint born in Egypt in the 3rd century. A biography written by Anthanasius of Alexandria in the 4th century described Anthony as a hermit in search of divine truth through nature. One of the stories that particularly captured readers’ imaginations was the story of his temptation (echoing Jesus’ temptation in the desert), which became a common subject for artists.
Grunewald’s image shows Anthony in the wilderness being tormented by fantastical beasts: a grinning horned demon pulls his hair, a giant bird is poised to strike him with a branch. All of these monsters are represented with a great amount of detail and dwarf the figure of Anthony. At the left hand corner, a figure appears to be afflicted with Saint Anthony’s Fire––he is slumped on the ground with heavily pockmarked skin. This huge altarpiece would have been visible to people afflicted with the disease and the figure in the corner would have been at eye level, inviting identification. On the opposite side of the panel, a cartello (a painted signboard) reads (in Latin), “Where were you good Jesus, where were you? Why were you not there to heal my wounds?”
In the upper portion of the panel, bright light emanates from an indistinct figure, which perhaps is meant to suggest God or Jesus. This detail seems to indicate the possibility of salvation, but we are overwhelmed by the torturous scene dominating the canvas. Because of the hallucinogenic effects of the disease, we can ask ourselves: are these beings really there? Are they a vision?
The Isenheim Altarpiece is usually housed in the Musée Unterlinden in Colmar (about a half hour from Strasbourg, France). The museum is under renovation, so for the moment you can visit it in a nearby church, the Dominican.